The interplay of corporate life and political life was epitomized by Calvin Coolidge's famous words, "The business of America is business." That line comes freshly to mind as GOP vice-presidential nominee Dick Cheney tries to quiet the storm over his retirement package from the Halliburton Company, the energy-services giant.
Mr. Cheney's specific problem is how to arrange his affairs so that options given him by Halliburton to buy hundreds of thousands of shares in the company won't still be active when - and if - the Republican ticket wins and he takes office next year. That would pose an unacceptable conflict of interest. Decisions he may have a hand in could affect the price of oil - and hence the value of his options.
Cheney has said he'll do whatever is needed to avoid a conflict of interest. He has also said it wouldn't be fair if he had to give away all his assets in order to serve the public. Perhaps, but the immediate need is for Cheney to head into the fall campaign without this cloud over his, and George W. Bush's, head. That could mean sacrificing some potential wealth - which wouldn't hurt him in the voters' eyes.
Cheney and Bush also have a broader problem - one they share with their Democratic competitors, though the latter may be loath to admit it. The Cheney-Halliburton connection, together with Mr. Bush's oil-business past, adds another layer to the "party of big business" image long used against Republicans.
But in 2000, much more than 75 years after Coolidge uttered his memorable words, looking out for the interests of business and benefiting from the political largess of business have become bipartisan. Their populist rhetoric aside, the Democrats, too, rake in their millions in corporate campaign contributions.
They have their own coziness with business. Joe Lieberman, for example, has ties to Connecticut's dominant industry, insurance, that rival Cheney's oil-industry ties. Mr. Lieberman leads all senators in the contributions he receives from insurers. Before his vice-presidential nomination, he had collected more than $700,000 from the insurance, real estate, and financial industries toward his Senate race this year.
There may be nothing inherently wrong with such ties. But they put a special responsibility on politicians to prove they're capable of perceiving a higher public interest.
Cheney can dispel conflict of interest doubts by taking credible action to eliminate any possibility of personal profit from official acts. Easing the public's doubts that politicians who rely on business backing are really free of corporate control is a bigger job, but one that the candidates should be duty-bound to shoulder.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society